Ring ring.

“Hi. It’s Doug Richardson. You’ve reached my voicemail. Please leave a message.”

Beep.

“Hi, Doug. It’s Susie from credits over at the Writer’s Guild. We have a decision on the arbitration. Please call me back at your soonest convenience…”

Arbitration.

Just hearing the word is stimulus enough to produce a flop sweat. And it wasn’t even my name in the fire. The preceding phone message was merely to inform me that a decision had been arrived upon involving a credit throw-down amongst writers other than myself. On this particular occasion, I was one of the three volunteer arbiters deciding whose names would end up on screen, and the movie poster, plust some massive chunk of ego-advertisement erected along Sunset Boulevard.

But whether you’re the one reading a Guild arbitration or are one of the writers engaged in the bloody fight, it is and will always be, an awful process. Yet it remains as common as a Marvel superhero sequel and something each and every script jockey should expect to experience.

Here’s my most memorable tale.

Author Robert “Bob” Crais was the first to have a crack at adapting his novel, Hostage. More often than I’d like to count, I’d been the guy in his position—adapting my own book for the screen or writing an original screenplay on assignment, only to be replaced and have to suffer another screenwriter usurping my ride. Sure. It’s part of the business. But it’s never any fun to be dealt out of the game, forced to helplessly look on from a distance. So when I signed on to rewrite Hostage and steer the script through months of production, I attempted a different tact. I chose to engage with my predecessor and offer a writer’s hand of friendship.

Producer David Wally had expressed to me on more than one occasion that Bob was a stand-up guy. Proving his point, he’d arranged for the three of us to meet up at a Topanga Canyon Mexican joint, to eat chips and salsa and knock back some cold cervezas. We traded the usual writer’s war stories about agents and easy actresses. By the end of the evening, I’d promised to keep Bob in the loop. I also made it my responsibility to make sure Bob got his fair share of any swag that came my way. Logo’d hats, t-shirts. I delivered. When Bob requested an on-screen cameo in the movie, David Wally and I hooked him up with the part of a SWAT sniper and set him for a fitting with the show’s costumer. And when the month of night shoots began, Bob helped me survive the turgid weekends and stay on the upside-down schedule by closing a few of our neighborhood bars.

Yeah. Bob came as advertised. He was cool.

Then Bob decided to sue the movie. Which, I might add, was his right and obligation. Just a little issue involving payment over the rights to his novel on which the movie was based. Then things got kinda messy. Bob’s sniper cameo was summarily cut before he had a chance to roll film on it. It was also strongly recommended that those of us still working on the production cease contact with the author while the conflict was being resolved. It wasn’t so difficult considering Bob Crais hadn’t any interest whatsoever in talking to anybody associated with the picture. And that included me.

The production eventually wrapped. And months later, once the picture was locked, it was time to discuss the issue of credit.

“Got a call from the company,” said David Wally over the phone. “They’re ready to submit credits to the Guild. How would you like them to read?”

First allow me this brief explanation of the initial process. The submission of credits is something all signatories to the Writers Guild of America are required to perform. In essence, it’s the studio’s opinion as to how they believe the final on-screen writing credit should read. It’s customary for the studio to consult with the producer(s) and sometimes the director before they commit the official opinion to paper. It’s not so customary that they consult the last writer–just the writer whose ass they feel most compelled to kiss.

On this rare occasion, it was my butt that required lip service. Hostage was a special case in that a three-week favor had mushroomed into over a year of my life. I’d even been offered a producer’s credit in lieu of all the hassle the gig had inflicted on my life. A producer’s credit which I politely declined. Why? you ask. Because making me a producer on the movie would’ve triggered an instant WGA arbitration. Not just that, but coming to the writers’ table as either producer or director automatically raises the credit threshold. In other words, the credit bar is higher for writing producers and directors to deter the rewriting of lowlier, less powerful word jockeys. Unfair, you say? In my opinion, yes. But not in the opinion of the majority of voting WGA members.

“I think credit should read the way I always thought it should,” I replied to David Wally’s query. “Screenplay by Robert Crais and myself. In that order. Based, of course, on Bob’s novel.”

“Will do,” said David Wally. “But you’re being way too fair to Crais.”

“Fair is fair,” I said. “And that’s the credit that should create the least amount of conflict.”

In my dubious career I’d already been through three prior arbitrations. I didn’t need a painful fourth. The process was just too damn traumatizing. Writer versus writer? It plain sucked.

So a Tentative Notice of Credit was sent to the WGA. At my request it listed both Robert Crais and yours truly as co-screenwriters of Hostage. Upon receipt the Guild forwarded an official missive to all participating scribes. In the case of Hostage, the recipients were only Bob and myself. If the order and credit were to be agreed upon, our instructions were to contact the Guild credits’ department by both phone and in writing that all parties were comfortable enough to move on with our word-loving lives. If notice was not agreeable, it was up to one of us to send up a flare of protest.

Which is precisely what Robert Crais did. He protested.

The WGA credits department called to inform me that the book’s author, who’d finally been paid for the rights to his novel, was seeking sole screenwriting credit: Screenplay by Robert Crais based on the novel by Robert Crais.

This also meant that in Bob’s heart, mind, and bone marrow he fully intended to erase me from any and all onscreen participation in the movie.

With that, I cursed so many blue streaks I could’ve repainted the famous sky wall at Paramount.

“I thought you said Robert Crais was a cool guy?” I barked at my war buddy, David Wally.

“And he was a cool guy,” yelled David, “Until the prick-asshole decided to sue the fuckin’ movie!”

We both laughed. Though inside I was sick at the idea that, after all I’d been through—the nights, the wars, not to mention the thousands upon thousands of words I’d strung together in order to make Hostage something worth watching–not to mention missing a year of my children’s lives–it would be up to three anonymous WGA arbiters to decide if my name would even make the final print, the posters, the DVDs, for forever and always.

I emailed a note to Bob Crais. I straight-up asked him if he honestly felt he deserved sole credit on the film while leaving me with none whatsoever.

Bob Crais responded with a succinct note that read as follows:

“Doug. I honestly do. Bob”

I couldn’t imagine what precisely was the motive behind Bob’s credit grab. Especially after all I’d done for him prior to his suing the movie–not to mention insisting he receive first position in the credit block. I can, though, tell you what I think drives way too many writers into wrangling for undeserved onscreen recognition.

Money.

The most obvious of motives are the hefty residuals that can be banked after a hit movie and also the potential for later employment by studios who generally prefer to hire writers with successful track records.

But there’s this other, less discussed, carrot-on-a-stick. It’s this little clause found in most screenwriter’s motion picture contracts called the “credit bonus.” Simply put, if the writer gets credit, the writer shall receive a big-assed bonus. Such is usually a last-minute negotiating giveaway to the writer in lieu of taking less dough up front. And it’s looked upon as funny money by industry lawyers because, by the time the movie gets made–if ever–who the hell knows how many writers might’ve worked on it, let alone how many deserved or could receive credit? Smooth, huh? Especially if it acts as catnip for snubbed writers who see the process of WGA credit arbitration as a potential lottery win.

Whatever his rationale, once Bob Crais raised his angry flag of protest, my marching orders were clear. Defend my work. So that’s what I did. Weeks later, I submitted my formal, written argument to the WGA credits department and followed by performing the hardest act in Hollywood. Waiting.

About a month later, I found myself with none other than David Wally when the WGA credits coordinator called to say the three anonymous arbiters had awarded me sole screenwriting credit on Hostage. Though I was obviously pumped at my victory, I couldn’t help noticing that the credits coordinator at the other end of the phone sounded rather shaky and disturbed when giving me the hearty news. When I asked her why, she was only allowed to say that seconds before dialing me she’d been the phone with Robert Crais, delivering the author the bad news that he would be receiving zero screenwriting credit on the movie. I expect that, by the spooked timbre of her voice, Bob might’ve subjected the defenseless messenger with an ego-blast of fiery, curse-laden indignation.

In closing, I’d rather not moralize and, instead encourage others to accept a rather simple truth. There is never any sin in success if we are willing to share the warmth of the spotlight…or credit.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: 99 PERCENT KILL: A LUCKY DEY THRILLER, BLOOD MONEY, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
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  • https://twitter.com/fejumas Monique Mata

    Wow, bad move (and a shame) on Bob’s part. Talk about burning bridges… Checking his IMDB page, he hasn’t been credited for anything since 1998. Goes to show, you have to play nice.

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Bad move is an understatement. Think he needed some better “strategery.” Thanks Monique.

  • Thomas Ballard

    Karma, mayhap?

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Karma certainly.

  • http://www.vimeo.com/schloog Schloog

    All credit to you Doug for trying to give someone their due.

    (mmm, pun not originally intended, but that’s a line with several layers, and I’ll take credit for it if you don’t mind…or arbitrate)

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Puns welcome. Plus your comment is appropriate, considering.

  • http://dougkissock.co.uk Doug Kissock

    Conclusive proof that sometimes fifty percent of something is better than one hundred percent of nothing!

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Maybe he looked at it this way. His name was on the film no matter what because he wrote the novel.

  • James Hornsby

    My only question is why would he feel so entitled, and not to give credit to you for your work since you were the one so engaged with it during production? How could he be so…obtuse? If it were only the money, then he got is just reward. Another great read. Thank you.

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Thanks James. Unanswered questions without Mr. Crais here to answer… assuming it would be an honest answer.

  • Wayne

    So he sued for more than the charitable shared credit he was offered.
    The final arbitration gave him less than he had going in.
    It’s like rejecting a plea bargain and going to trial.
    You can get nothing.

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Wisely put, Wayne. If I ever get caught in the pokey, you might be my first call.

  • http://www.diannegreenlay.com Dianne Greenlay

    People’s greed and feeling of self-deservedness are astounding to me. It’s like another version of those shows where the contestants, instead of being happy and grateful for what they have gained, choose to do another round and lose it all.

    Thanks for another entertaining post, Doug!

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      As Gordon Gecko said, “Greeeeeeeeed is good.”

  • http://marciliroff.com Marci Liroff

    Love this last sentence: “There is never any sin in success if we are willing to share the warmth of the spotlight…or credit.”
    Or, as the Jews say, “Be a mensch!”

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Maybe I just shoulda said that. Thanks Marci.

  • http://www.ScifiAliens.com Phyllis K Twombly

    I know of another author–who shall remain nameless–who feels cheated for not being recognized as one of the screenwriters. I had sympathy until I learned the novelist had not written a single word of the screenplay.

    Often when people’s actions are out of character it’s not to hard to find someone else’s ego or bad advice at work. Your consideration was above and beyond duty. Kindness pays off, although it sometimes takes time. Glad you stayed positive.

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Bob, as you read, did have a crack at the screenplay. And it was probably too faithful to his book when the finished product was not. Anyway, it’s water under the bridge and just another tale in the dark city of movie dreams. Thanks Phyl.

  • paul

    Bob’s strategy left something to be desired! I’m trying to see how it made sense for him to play it out the way he did…, but real estate and property transactions tend to bring out the worst in some people it seems. Totally on the money about sharing the spotlight. Another great blog, Doug.

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Thanks Paul. Don’t know if Bob had a strategy other than to erase my contribution. In that, he couldn’t see what I brought to the party. The only thing I know for sure is that he was mad that I killed the dog, insisting the movie would suffer greatly for it.

  • Jeff Turner

    I think what kills me is that the lead to greatness is not based on the success of a project, but on the moneys one receives due to that success…I get that is the ultimate goal, but at what cost? To start off as a straight up guy only to end up as a hardened ass-jockey? You can never really know someone until they open their heartstrings and let their true colors reign. Doug, I give you much credit for remaining sophisticated and savvy in a business that wreaks of evil. I love the art of film…from inception to completion, but the business wreaks of thieves and unharmonious knife-wielders. Congrats on retaining SOLE credit. I believe it was well-deserved despite Mr. Douche…ahem, excuse me…Mr. Crais’ insistent need to reap sole title credit. Look forward to your next blog…always entertaining!

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Don’t know if I’m sophisticated or savvy, Jeff. Maybe just mature.

  • Tom Finnegan

    Doug, I can’t tell you how much I love these stories! For what it’s worth, your writing gives me more insight to the inner workings of Hollywood then any book, magazine, or doc ever did. It’s probably intrinsic to your ability, but I would pay cold hard cash to see these true stories on a TV or film screen (with the names changed to protect the innocent, of course). Who needs Entourage! On a serious note, do you ever worry about being blackballed or passed over for work because of your honesty on this site? Please say “no” for your readers…

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      No.

  • Robert

    In the the late 90’s, I was taken to arbitration over a TV script I had sold. The sole staff writer had re-written me and the sole Producer had suggested she take me to arbitration as a way to make more money, since, he wasn’t paying her very well. Rarely is there arbitration over a TV show. Those scripts are always re-written and it just isn’t done. All of this was unbeknownst to me. I had moved and the morons at the Guild had trouble finding me. When they finally did, it was the day before my statement was due and I was flying to Europe the following day to blow off both steam, and my script fee. I wrote my my statement on the fly. And because I was so sickened by the Producer and the process, I wrote my statement in a highly irreverent tone. I complained about the Producer, his clothing, that he never bought us lunch, and even that he made us pay for parking. In short: I neglected to take this important process seriously. I had no clue the residual package would be much of anything. I sent in my statement and off to Europe I went. I returned two months later to a voicemail from someone at the Guild (Susie I think, Doug. That made me chuckle) informing me that a decision had been reached. So I called and spoke with her. “You won your arbitration,” she told me, “it’s the first TV arbitration the original writer has won in a long time.” Then she paused as if she wanted to say more. “Also, for the record, the decision was unanimous. Off the record, the committee said yours was the funniest statement they had ever read and there was no way they could go against you.” The staff writer was livid (I heard) even more so I suspect when she found out that the residual package was equal to 5 times the original script fee. Great story, Doug. Thanks!

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      You might want to publish that statement, Robert. Could get you a lotta hits. I certainly know I’d be one.

  • http://scriptcat.wordpress.com/ Scriptcat

    You’re a class act, Doug. Always enjoy your “from the trenches” stories. It’s a shame when artists can’t see the “bigger picture” and make a grab at “who deserves credit.” Yes, I believe karma does eventually prevail, but it may take some time. I’ve been through a few grabs from collaborators myself over the years and do my best to avoid them—but like you say, it’s another “tale in the dark city of movie dreams.” A cautionary tale indeed. Thanks for the great posts.

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Thanks nameless Scriptchat person…

  • Robert

    Ha! Thanks, Doug. I think that statement got lost when I moved to NY. But the memory of that Producer wearing the same ugly plaid pants at every story meeting (all 6) is burned in my memory. Thanks! Love the blog.

  • Rewritten

    Great piece, Doug. I am particularly interested in the subject because I am pretty sure I’ll be involved in an arbitration. I’ve been researching the guild’s criteria. The WGA states that the first writer must prove 33 1/3% authorship. Subsequent writers who come on after the original writer must prove 50%. That includes characters, relationships, dialogue, themes, scenes… In your case, one writer has a better shot of changing 50% of the script. In my case, there are something like 16 other writer’s names on the script! While many contributed smaller percentages to the script, it is my opinion that none can claim 50% authorship. I will protest if I am not awarded sole credit. I imagine that one of the other writers (though I don’t know who) will protest if I am awarded sole credit for the very reasons you stated — Money and prestige.

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Well, suppose that’s something to look forward to, Rewritten. Don’t take the process lightly, though. Do your homework. Wait. Am I one of those sixteen writers? Forget everything I’ve said!

  • http://allisonburnett.com Allison Burnett

    I was once in your position, with my sharing the credit with the original writing team. Two days before the arbitration was to begin, I got the writing team on the phone and said, “Look there is really good chance that the credit is going to remain as is, but there is a slight chance that you guys are going to lose everything. And there is almost no chance that I will lose my credit. So why don’t we just call this off, be collegial, and all get to celebrate this victory together.” Guess what? They said yes. It was one of the lovelier moments I’ve ever enjoyed in this business.

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Excellent, Allison. On most of my other arbitrations I’ve tried to reach out. Was rebuffed a few times. And once it was like you described. Worth trying, folks.

  • http://www.PleaseReadMyScript.com Please Read My Script

    People want what they can’t have. Perhaps if more of you working writers would stand a bit stronger behind your work and get the language in the contracts written more fairly, these issues would largely go away.

    Respect yourselves, respect your work, and learn to negotiate; even if it means negotiating with your agent to push harder on your behalf. Learn to sell, because whether or not you believe it, you are absolutely in the business of promoting yourself, your work, and the value you personally bring to the overall process.

  • http://www.jamesschneider.com James Schneider

    Thanks, Doug.
    I really enjoyed this, and am glad to have found your blog.

  • Moira Leeper

    Great read. Thanks for posting it, I’ll be reading it in the future.

  • Moira Leeper

    Err…I did read it – I’ll be reading your blog more the future!

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Thanks James and Moira.

  • Sean

    Many writers who know they don’t have a leg to stand on arbitrate because there is no incentive not to. If you hear you’re not credited, might as well make a grab for it and hope you get lucky. I’ve been arbitrated against in this way several times and (thankfully) won each of them. Still, the giant waste of time is beyond frustrating.

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      As I said, it’s a lottery mentality. Why not throw a dollar at it and see if I get lucky?

  • Alexander T.

    I’d never heard of you before, but I was linked to this article and I want to thank you for the fascinating look inside the WGA and arbitration process. I recognize there’s two sides to every story and we didn’t get a solid 50% of this one, but it does seem like you’re a stand-up guy.

    Thanks for taking the time to post it!

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Glad you found it, Alexander. And yes. You only got half the tale. Would love it myself to hear the other half.

  • Justin Sloan

    Thank you again Doug! If we’re ever in this situation I know now to make sure and share :)

    • http://www.dougrichardson.com Doug Richardson

      Glad you learned. In success, plenty of credit to go around.

  • Pingback: Fight or Flight: Doug Richardson’s Battle over WGA Credits for the Film “Hostage” | FilmmakerIQ.com()

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  • http://www.whydontyoulikeme.com Jared

    I watched a friend go through this process with a TV series “created by” credit. Good lord what an ordeal. It was a profoundly harrowing couple of months for him and then it was all for naught – the series was a flop and didn’t last for a second season. Seems like in this case and in the case I’m referring to all parties would have been better off doing the “right thing” (as you did). Seems like we could all stand to listen to our built-in-moral-compasses more often. Maybe Bob Crais’ was off that day you wrote to him. He should have tapped it (his compass) – he’d be 50% richer today if he had. Thanks for the true tale, Doug, Good stuff.

  • boston.grant@hotmail.co.uk

    Five words from the 1st writers script remain and this farcical process awards SOLE credit to them. No characters. No scenes, no plots but one union member pitted against an outsider.
    This labor organisation will come undone through the absurdity of such decisions as their members stand by.
    ” then they came for me and there was no one left”